Destruction of Korean Cultural Treasure Brings Out the Best in Chinese Netizens

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A guest post from Sonagi

Koreans and Koreaphiles woke up last Tuesday morning to horrific images of beloved Sungnyemun, one of two large city gates located in downtown Seoul, charred and smoldering from a fire set the night before by an arsonist. Serious vandalism is rare in Korea compared to North America and Europe, so no guards were posted at this gate, accessible to the public.

The large stone gate topped with a two-story wooden pavilion painted in Korea’s traditional green-dominated palette is a standout historical landmark surrounded by gleaming high-rises and a swirl of people, cars, and buses. Sungnyemun is denoted as National Treasure #1, but this reflects the order of registration, not the significance or value of the structure. Adjacent to the gate is Namdaemun Market, whose shops and restaurants occupy several city blocks.

Over the last few days, Seoulites have gathered somberly to view the ruins, an atmosphere one expat blogger likened to a wake.

Curious to see how this tragic event was being covered in the Chinese media, I visited some internet portals and after browsing the news stories, I read the comment threads and was shocked at the almost uniformly nasty vitriol spewed by Chinese netizens: scornful jokes about the unimpressiveness of the gate and put-downs of Korean culture and history, punctuated by the epithet “¸ßÀö°ô×Ó” (gaoli bangzi), a favorite anti-Korean slur.

The anonymity of the internet is the refuge of scoundrels everywhere; however, one would expect message threads on major portals like Sina and Tianya to contain some voices of reason, yet nearly every Chinese netizen posting on the threads used the loss of a historically important city gate as an excuse to ridicule Korea and Koreans, revealing themselves as a classless and mean-spirited bunch.

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Spielberg and the Olympics

This story is certainly going to pump new life into the Boycott the 2008 Olympics movement. The Chinese were full of pride that Spielberg was going to help choreograph the much anticipated Opening Ceremony on August 8, and that pride will be tranformed into resentment and indignation very soon. (It appears, by the way, that nearly every link to the topic on Google News activates the dreaded “Server not Found” window.)

The question of a boycott is a difficult issue that brings out a lot of raw emotion on both sides. The Chinese government is often unjust, unfair, deceptive, inhumane and oppressive beyond words. Should it be punished by an international boycott of the Olympics? Should advocacy groups be using the Games to press their causes? Who would such a boycott serve? How accountable should China be for the behavior of its allies? You can find lots of ammunition to call for a boycott, but to what end?

In the shadow of the $440-million “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium, migrant workers toil for a few dollars a day. A few miles away, bulldozers destroy a neighborhood where petitioners gather to seek justice from the government. Farther afield, foreign journalists endure sporadic harassment despite promised press freedoms, with Chinese reporters, bloggers and activists facing far greater restrictions.

As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympics in August, planners hope the outside world sees the glam architecture and ignores the poverty and social tension in the shadows.

“The Chinese way to say it is, we’re looking for ‘big face’ from the Games,” said Liu Junning, an analyst with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute in Beijing.

New concerns emerged Tuesday when film director Steven Spielberg announced his withdrawal as artistic advisor for the Games over China’s support for the Sudanese government despite ongoing violence in the Darfur region.

The public relations blow came as eight Nobel Prize winners, 119 U.S. lawmakers and several entertainers signed a letter urging Chinese leaders to use their “significant influence” with the African nation to halt the genocide.

China doesn’t have a monopoly on attracting the anger of activists or on attempting to put its best foot forward. But the enormous gap in this restless country between wealthy 21st century cities and benighted 19th century rural areas, between egalitarian rhetoric and the reality of today’s cutthroat capitalism, raises the stakes.

Beijing is working much harder to airbrush out the negatives than previous Olympic hosts, reflecting in part a regime accustomed to controlling its media and critics.

China has courted, as I’ve said many times here, the murdering scum of the earth. Its engineer-leaders see the nation’s foreign policy in mathematical terms; the grid shows them where the resources are, what they have to pay to get them, and what their return on investment will be. The grid does not factor in human suffering, genocide or crimes against humanity. The question is, should the Olympics be used as a mechanism for punishing China for its sleeping with butchers?

A hard question. If someone asked me in 1935 if I would recommend boycotting the Games of 1936 I’d have a hard time answering. In 1936 we still did not know what history had in store for us, no matter how loathsome Hitler was. Maybe we’d have thought the Olympics would have a healing effect, injecting some badly needed sanity into a deranged Nazi Germany. (Of course, it didn’t turn out that way.) Had the Games been scheduled for 1938, however, and I were asked the same question after Kristallnacht I would have been the first to insist on a complete boycott. The German government was an accomplice to premeditated murder.

I am not comparing the policies of the CCP to the Nazis; if I could do that, I would be calling for a boycott. Rather, I’m trying to deal with the question, when is a boycott called for? In my opinion, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did not make the grade, and America’s invasion of Iraq doesn’t either – i.e., these oppressive and stupid acts merit condemnation but not across the board boycotts, even of sporting events, that punish the entire nation. We can list the iniquities of modern-day China and find a lot of grounds for outrage. But do we make them grounds for boycotting the Olympics?

As I argued in another thread, it isn’t that hard to find horror stories about the US under Bush, and of many other nations. (And no, I am not saying the US is as bad as China.) Should all these nations be boycotted? Should the Olympic Games be seen as a bargaining chip for advocacy groups? Should other nations shun America for the policies of our dim-witted president, and should our athletes be punished for it the way they were under Carter? Would the US boycott of the Beijing Olympics serve as a healthy precedent?

As I write about this, I have to admit I have mixed feelings. China has made a pact with the devil, pumping money into a regime that promotes genocide and then putting up pictures all over town of giraffes and elephants celebrating China’s harmonious and joyful partnership with Africa. But pacts with the devil are nothing new. What are our criteria for demanding an international boycott of any event in any country? Would we feel so comfortable with those criteria to have them imposed on our own country, whatever that may be?

Bottom line for me at this moment: China’s relationship with the government of Sudan is not sufficient grounds for a boycott. I think it would create many more problems than it would solve, and it would certainly do little for those suffering in Darfur.

As a disclaimer, I work with more than one company here that has a stake in the 2008 Olympics. I try not to let that affect my perception of what’s happening here in China. In fact, my work has only caused me to be more critical than ever of the incompetencies and stupidities of the Chinese bureaucracy. And no, I do not in any way, shape or form answer to anyone involved in the government here, despite harebrained reports that I am on the CCP payroll. That is utter nonsense.

Apologies in advance for not taking a super-hard stance either way on this question. This post is more about questions than answers.

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USA votes 2008 – A tale of two candidacies

The news just out is that Mitt Romney has withdrawn from the Republican race after he failed to make sufficient gains in the Super Tuesday contests. John McCain is now effectively assured the nomination. In contrast neither Clinton nor Obama were able to claim a decisive victory, with both teams pointing to reasons to look positive.

This is a complete reversal from the end of last year. Back then Hillary was still viewed as the clear favourite for the Democrat crown, whilst the Republican race had a large number of candidates fighting for the top spot. Now it is the Republicans who are rallying around one figure, whilst the Democrats could have to wait until August for the final result.

So, good news for John McCain. Mitt Romney’s comments appeared directed at encouraging GOP conservatives to back him to defeat the Democrats, even if he didn’t refer to the senator by name. McCain’s only opponent, Huckabee, poses no real threat as he lacks national appeal. Support of certain anti-McCain commentators did little for Romney, so it won’t help him either even if they try to rally around the minister. This gives “Mac” time to rally the party around him.

Because time is important. Currently a significant number of Republicans are sulking about some of McCain’s political leanings. These aren’t for show, because some of the moderate views he expressed were more likely to hinder rather than help his nomination campaign. If he had been cynical he would have acted conservative in the nomination round and then stressed more liberal policies later. But what you see is what you would get with him – and he’s not afraid of speaking his mind. So, with the Democrats still focusing on the nomination the Republicans will have the opportunity to band together and start looking for those crucial swing-voters.

As for anyone who is disappointed at McCain’s success, I would say that it is better to have two good candidates for America’s presidency than one good and one awful, even if in the former situation your personal choice loses out.

Raj

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Big surprise: China’s cybernanny to take a break during Olympics

We all knew this was inevitable: there was no way China would invest gazillions of dollars in all things related to the 2008 Olympics and then leave themselves vulnerable to charges of mass censorship, which would obviously rise up in a deafening chorus as the thousands of foreign media who will be here seek to get on their favorite web sites only to encounter the dreaded “server not found” page. Just as the “Juden verboten” signs were quietly removed from the storefront windows in 1936, the cybernanny will go on temporary leave come the summer. (And no, I am not equating the CCP with the Nazi party, but this comparison of how each prettied things up for the Olympics is a valid one.)

China is debating whether to relax control of the Internet during the Olympics, allowing access to banned websites such as the BBC, a spokeswoman for the organising committee said Tuesday.

Plans to tear down the so-called Great Firewall of China were being debated and a decision was expected soon, said Wang Hui, head of media relations for the organising committee.

“We are studying this now based on suggestions of some journalists and a study of the experiences of other countries, so during the Olympics there may be some changes,” she said. “This is one of the ways the Olympics may promote progress in China.”

China tightly polices cyberspace and Chinese web surfers see a stripped-down version of the Internet minus some news sites such as the BBC and those belonging to human rights groups or any other sites judged subversive by the country’s communist rulers.

Wang said that changes were expected to be in place in time for the Olympics for the 20,000 foreign journalists planning to cover the Games.

Hard to imagine a more cynical move, nothing short of an admission that much of what visitors will see in August 2008 is window dressing. But it was totally expected and totally consistent with the way they are choreographing their 18 days in the sun. It will be interesting to see just how far they go with this. Will they even unblock the Free Tibet, Tiananmen Square Ma@@acre, Taiwan Independence and F@lun Gong sites?

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Lest we forget…

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Happy New Year, everyone.

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The generals and the infantry

Stories about the “two faces of China” and the separate universes in which they exist are now so plentiful most us skip them over – we know the scene too well. Last week’s breakdown of the transportation system in the wake of record snowstorms , however, brought the story back into the public eye with the vivid poignancy that only a photograph can. There were the swelling masses surrounding the train stations, the poor workers who have only a few days every year to be with their families, and poor Wen Jiaobao with his bullhorn, the guy the party always trots out when the masses need to be soothed.

One Beijing reporter writes today of the international consequences of this circus – of how it gives the world a picture of China that is the exact opposite of what China wants the world to think.

While the generals dined in London, the poor bloody infantry were in the Guangzhou trenches.

For them, those station platforms were evidence of the shameful fact that China is still, at heart, a fragile country, one whose political and business leaders can engineer the occasional victory to impress foreigners but find it hard to respond to the needs of the struggling billions at home.

While the weather was the worst in 50 years, I was surprised at the number of people for whom snow on the line washed no better as an excuse in Shanghai than in Surrey. The railways being state-run (and so is Chinalco, by the way), their failure was a failure of government.

In many ways, they are correct in seeing China in this light, and the desperation on the faces of those crowds, or the fate of Mrs Chu Hongling, who gave birth after spending three days in a snow-bound bus on a motorway, are a warning of the hubris that can befall any nation that is told too often that it represents the end of history.

A trillion dollars it may have in foreign exchange reserves, but the Middle Kingdom remains an unequal and fragmented society, still traumatised by war, famine and revolution, and still led by a government that is opaque, often unresponsive, and in many ways self-serving.

I wish I had a copy of some of the CCTV footage I saw last week. Most unforgettable was a clip of old men shoveling snow in front of a train station with Wen Jiaobao standing nearby. All of the four or five men were beaming with joy, flashing these shit-eating grins at the camera, looking just like those old drawings of Lei Feng grinning ear to ear as he darns soldiers’ socks in the night. “We are happy to serve our parts as cogs n the great socialist machine!” The reality was grim and dark, but the picture China was putting out to the world was all sweetness and light. It was obviously choreographed and totally artificial, but so are all their propaganda efforts.

Take a look at Spencer’s article. He cleverly draws a parallel between how China handled the storms and how it handled the secret corporate raid yesterday of Rio Tinto, the Australian mining company.

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My Country

This was done to a woman who called the police for help. It is beyond unbelievable. It is beyond repellent. See the video. Read the comments. Then think hard about what’s wrong and what led us here.

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Inflation in China: a looming threat

Two reporters called me in the past three weeks to see if companies I work with will discuss how they feel inflation in China is going to affect their business. It is here, and I think it’s going to be the big word of 2008, just as “sub-prime” was the big word of 2007 (at least in the US).

One of my client-friends was telling me a few weeks ago how he and his wife had budgeted 100 to 150 RMB a week for food for themselves and their infant son. Now his wife is spending more than 200 RMB. It’s when I talk with people like this that I remember that not everyone has RMB to burn on Da Dong dinners and iPhones. This is a white-collar worker with a degree who has studied in the US.

Another friend of mine moved out of Beijing more than a year ago and now wants to move back, but he is shocked at the increase in rent. Of course, that’s more the Olympics than ordinary inflation, but many here seem to feel property prices will remain high even after the crowds go home in late August. This friend is also white-collar, and I truly feel for him. What is a scarcely noticeable up-tick in prices to me is a catastrophe for him.

With this in mind, I enjoyed this post about the fear of inflation and the tendency of the Chinese people to value cash over everything else. This mindset has served China well in the recent past, but it could spell a lot of disappointment in the future.

While China was very poor in the fifties, sixties and seventies, there was virtually no inflation.

Today in China, we are seeing the early signs of inflation again in food prices and property prices. For any Chinese government, and this government is no exception, inflation is the greatest single and most frightening enemy it faces. It may creep up slowly, but it unleashes forces which can easily spin out of control.

If a government cannot maintain the value of its currency, it cannot protect its citizens, and the people end up in the poor house. It’s that simple.

This is why the Chinese government will not easily revalue the yuan upwards, and why the government keeps such a tight control on credit.

One of the upsides for Chinese businesses investing in Africa is that although the people are poor, at least they pay cash. When times turn hard, you want to be paid in cash.

For most Chinese, you aren’t rich unless you own cash.

Credit is just a derivative and in tough times, no one wants derivatives.

The same blogger – one of the smartest out there – thinks there might be better places to put one’s money.

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An Anatomy of Censorship in China

Via Danwei, a priceless illustration of the CCP propaganda department’s heavy-handed censorship. And they do this with a straight face. Thank god for blogs.

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Economic miracles?

It’s Saturday, and a work day in China thanks to the country’s impossibly strange holiday policy, giving you a long week off for Spring Festival but making you work through the weekend in return. Like a lot of other things here, it’s something you get used to.

It’s not only a workday, but it’s an intense workday. The government is open for business today, and in my work for one of my clients I have to deal with a particular government agency that I am now convinced represents the pinnacle of bureaucratic incompetence, arbitrariness and outright stupidity. My Chinese colleagues have been on the phone with them all day, and have been coming to my office nearly in tears at the outrageous and inexplicable demands. This agency makes K.’s dilemma in Kafka’s The Trial seem pleasant. I am waiting for the day when I can write my book and tell the world just how primitive and dysfunctional the bureaucracy here is. Someday. Not now. At the moment, I love this government agency and appreciate all their help and cooperation.

That was all just an irrelevant preface to an article that caught my eye on the “myths” behind both China’s and India’s “economic miracles.” Forgive the scare quotes, but I’m not 100 percent sure whether these things are actually myths or whether what’s happened in China and India are actually miracles. I’m especially not sure if the parallels the writer tries to draw between the two countries apply. I don’t know enough about India to judge, but I am always suspicious when explanations sound just a bit too tidy.

This, he says is the universally accepted myth:

A mix of market reforms and global integration finally unleashed their [India and China's] entrepreneurial energies. As these giants shook off their ‘socialist slumber,’ they entered the ‘flattened’ playing field of global capitalism. The result has been high economic growth in both countries and correspondingly large declines in poverty

This, he says, is the reality, at least in regard to China:

Start with the claim that global integration and associated market reforms resulted in high growth, which in turn produced dramatic declines in extreme poverty. Applied to China, the timing simply does not fit. China has indeed made large strides in foreign trade and investment since the 1990s, but well before then, say between 1978 and 1993, the country had already achieved an average annual growth rate of about nine percent – even higher than the impressive seven percent growth rate in East Asia between 1960 and 1980.

China’s poverty-reduction storyline is similarly flawed. While expansion of exports of labor-intensive manufactures lifted many people out of poverty over the past decade, the principal reason for the dramatic decline over the past three decades may lie elsewhere. World Bank estimates suggest that two-thirds of the decline in extremely poor people (those living below the admittedly crude poverty line of one dollar a day per capita at 1993 international parity prices) between 1981 and 2004 had taken place by the mid-1980s. Much of the extreme poverty was concentrated in rural areas, and its large decline in the first half of the 1980s may have been principally the result of domestic factors that have little if anything to do with global integration: a spurt in agricultural growth following de-collectivization, in which output increased at 7.1% per year on average between 1979 and 1984, almost triple the 1970-78 rate; a land reform program, involving a highly egalitarian distribution of land-cultivation rights subject only to differences in regional average and family size, which provided a floor for rural income; and increased farm procurement prices.

I was taking all of this seriously, thinking this writer might be making some good points, and then I came to this astonishing paragraph:

China’s earlier socialist period arguably provided a good launching pad for market reform. That foundation provided wide access to education and health care; highly egalitarian land redistribution that created a rural safety net and thus eased the process of market reform, with all its wrenching disruptions and dislocations; increased female labor participation and education that enhanced women’s contribution to economic growth; and a system of regional economic decentralization (that linked the career paths of Communist Party officials to local area performance). County governments were in charge of production enterprises long before Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms set in, and, even more significantly, the earlier commune system’s production brigades evolved into the highly successful township and village enterprises that led the later phenomenal rise of rural industrialization.

Oh god. And this guy is telling us what he sees as the myths about China? It sounds like he’s swallowed the biggest myth of all, hook, line and sinker. Some of the comments are intense and make for good reading.

I know, this post is meandering and inconclusive. Honestly, it’s mainly to take my mind off the government agency I need to deal with in a few minutes. But I love working with them.

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